Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Prophetic Activism Is Not Dead in the U.S.

In case you are wondering what progressive Christian communities are doing to promote justice in the United States and the world, the book Prophetic Activism is for you.

The author Helene Slessarev-Jamir is the Mildred M. Hutchinson Professor of Urban Studies at the Claremont School of Theology. She worked as a union and community organizer in Washington, D.C. and Chicago prior to graduate school. She is familiar with congregation-based community organizing and activism in support of worker justice and immigrant rights.

I came across this book when I searched in Amazon.com for a book that gives me a history of American churches’ involvement in social movements. This book does not so much tell me the past, but it provides a snapshot of the present.

The author notes that prophetic activism has arisen as a response to globalization of capital and production and the huge gap between the rich and the poor in wealthy countries and the deepening economic crises in poorer countries. This is in direct opposite to the Christian Right who gained national power by vilifying the welfare queens, urban black and Latino men, gays and lesbians, undocumented immigrants, and Muslims.

Prophetic activism is characterized by: 
  • A commitment to nonviolent social change: influenced by Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha or active nonviolence and Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights movement.
  •  The incorporation of aspects of liberation theology, especially among the Catholics. 
  • The openness to diverse spiritual practices and to working with people of other faith traditions. 
  • The use of popular education and bottom-up organizing to bridge the gap between the marginalized and the privileged. 
  • A concern for the well-being of the marginalized and for upholding basic human rights for all.
After elaborating on how prophetic activism is grounded in the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ teachings, Slessarev-Jamir discusses five arenas of prophetic activism in the United States: congregational community organizing influenced by Latin American liberation theology, religious worker-justice work, immigrants rights (activism along the border with Mexico and the new sanctuary movement), religious peacemaking, and finally global justice.

As I am working on a book on the Occupy movement, I find the chapter on global justice particularly illuminating.

Slessarev-Jamir uses the examples of Bread for the Word, Witness for Peace, Jubilee 2000, ONE campaign against global poverty, Save Darfur and Invisible Children in this chapter. She provides the background of these organizations and interviews staff and workers to offer a rich narrative.

Last Monday we had a U2 Eucharist at our school and we were introduced to the ONE campaign. A student from Iowa brought a quilt for the altar made by the young people in her church depicting the vision for the ONE world and the presider wore a similar stole. It reminded us that congregations can be important sites for mobilizing for action and worship can unleash the power of prophetic activism.

The Occupy movement can be seen as a continuation of the global justice movement: the linkage of the local and the global, the use of the Internet and social networking sites, the creation of songs, symbols, and popular culture, the horizontal organization, and networking with religious communities (e.g. the use of church space for meetings after the tent-cities were raided).

The book gives us a lot of hope, knowing that activism is alive and many churches and organizations are heeding the call to prophetic justice. At a time when cynicism runs deep and many people have lost much faith in political and economic institutions, I hope the churches can continue to signal to the world that God’s people are not frozen. They are still at the frontline, fighting for a better world.

The book concludes: “prophetic activism greatly enriches religious life in America by creating meaningful opportunities for religious people to connect their spirituality to a variety of just causes.” Faith without action is dead, the liberation theologians have taught us.